For a remarkably simple dish, fried chicken can be controversial. There are debates over brining the meat (yes, you should), how to coat the chicken, the fat used to fry it, the temperature at which it cooks.
Really, all you want is what the late, great Chapel Hill chef Bill Neal called “chicken that tastes like chicken, with a crust that snaps and breaks with fragility.” Here are our steps for how to get there.
Delicious fried chicken starts with the bird. A single chicken of 3 to 4 pounds can be cut into 10 parts for frying: 2 drumsticks, 2 thighs, 2 wings and the 2 breasts each cut in two, with the backbone discarded (or saved for stock). This will feed four people well.
To brine chicken, submerge the parts in a solution of salt and water, sometimes flavored with other ingredients, to season and add moisture to the meat. You can certainly fry chicken without brining, but brining is very little work, and it adds tremendously to the finished flavor.
Basic Brine: Dissolve 4 tablespoons kosher salt in 4 cups lukewarm water, then add the chicken parts to the solution. Cover and refrigerate for a few hours and up to overnight. (You can add a few tablespoons of sugar to the mixture, along with fresh herbs or chopped garlic.)
Buttermilk Brine: For many fried chicken aficionados, the only acceptable brine is made with buttermilk. Dissolve 2 tablespoons kosher salt in 4 cups fresh buttermilk, along with a healthy grind of black pepper. Add the chicken, cover and refrigerate for a few hours and up to overnight.
Pickle Brine: Put 2 cups pickle juice in a large bowl and add the chicken. Cover and refrigerate a few hours, up to overnight, turning a few times. The result: shockingly flavorful, juicy meat.
A shatteringly crisp crust is a hallmark of great fried chicken. You achieve that by coating the exterior with starch, or by using a batter. Some cooks combine the methods, and dip the chicken in buttermilk, milk or eggs before coating it in seasoned flour or starch.
The easiest method is to place the chicken in a large paper bag filled with flour seasoned with salt, pepper and occasionally paprika or hot pepper. Close the bag, shake it, and then remove each piece and shake off excess flour. You can use a big bowl in place of the bag; just dredge the chicken pieces through the seasoned flour and proceed as directed.
Not all cooks use all-purpose flour. Alternative starches include gluten-free flours, breadcrumbs, panko, cracker crumbs and potato starch. Other coatings include – really! – crumbled Cheetos and Doritos.
You can deep-fry chicken in a lot of oil, or shallow-fry in a little less. If you go the less-oil route, the fat should rise to at least halfway up the pieces to ensure even frying on each side. Either way, use tongs to turn the chicken a few times while it cooks. And, crucially, do not crowd the pan. You want plenty of oil surrounding each piece, but not so much that it spatters everywhere and makes a mess.
You'll need a heavy, wide skillet with a lid. Cast iron is best for the even heat it provides and retains. The skillet should be 11 or 12 inches in diameter and, ideally, it should be deep enough that there is a good inch or so above the surface of the oil even when there is chicken in it, to help reduce spatter and mess. An enameled cast-iron pot can be an excellent vessel for frying chicken.
Some cooks fry in lard, others in oil, or in a combination of the two. You want an oil with a high smoke point, which means it can be heated to a high temperature without burning. Olive oil and butter have low smoke points: Don’t use them for fried chicken. Instead, try peanut, canola or vegetable oil. (As the oil heats, you might slide a single slice of bacon into it to perfume the fat. Remove the bacon before frying the chicken.)
The ideal temperature is a steady 350 degrees. Monitor that by using a deep-fry thermometer. (No thermometer? Flick a little flour into your oil. If it sizzles furiously, you’re in the right neighborhood.) Bring the oil back up to 350 degrees between batches.
After you remove the chicken from the skillet, let it rest before serving. Some people place it on a paper bag, but this can lead to soggy skin. Better: Rest the chicken on a wire rack set on top of a baking sheet, sprinkling a little salt on it when it’s hot for extra flavor.
Buttermilk Fried Chicken
1 chicken, approximately 3 to 3 1/2 pounds, cut into 10 pieces (or a mix of thighs and drumsticks)
3 to 4 cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons kosher salt, more as needed
2 teaspoons ground black pepper, more as needed
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3 cups peanut oil, lard or a neutral oil like canola, more as needed
Place chicken pieces in a bowl and toss them with buttermilk, 2 tablespoons salt and a healthy grind of black pepper. Cover and refrigerate at least an hour and up to a day.
Combine flour, 1 tablespoon salt and 2 teaspoons pepper in a large bowl or, ideally, a paper bag large enough to accommodate the flour and the pieces of chicken.
Pour oil into a large, heavy-bottomed cast-iron skillet with high sides and a lid, to a depth of a few inches. Heat oil over medium-high heat to 350 degrees.
Set a rack on a baking sheet or tray. Place the chicken pieces in the paper bag filled with the flour mixture and shake well to coat, or toss them in the bowl with the flour mixture to achieve a similar result.
Shake off excess flour and fry the pieces of chicken skin-side down, in batches so as not to crowd the pan, for about 12 to 15 minutes, covered by the lid. Remove the lid, turn the chicken, and cook about 12 to 15 minutes longer, uncovered, until they are cooked through and a deep golden brown. (Lower the heat as needed so the crust doesn’t brown too fast.)
Remove chicken to the rack to drain and rest, sprinkle with salt and serve warm or at room temperature.
Yield: 4 servings